Against Incomparability

There is a commonly held belief that there are some things that simply cannot be compared. For example, I have had many people tell me that you cannot put a dollar value on a human life, or that it’s impossible to compare two people’s lived experiences. This argument seems to come in one of two forms.

First, that one type of good is categorically better than another. For example, one might say that human life is more valuable than any amount of money. So given the choice between saving a stranger’s life and receiving X amount of money, you should save the person, no matter how big X is. But what if X is large enough to save two strangers from dying of disease if donated to effective charities? The utilitarian argues you should take the money and save the two people rather than saving just the one person.

It’s not as simple as this. When you start thinking about human lives as just numbers, it’s very easy to lose track of your empathy, why you’re trying to help people in the first place. This does damage to yourself and to the society you’re a part of, and cannot be written off. But certainly some amount X should be large enough to make this worth it. What if X can save a million people? A billion? It seems downright irresponsible to refuse. To say that a single human life is infinitely more important than any amount of money could have us end up with significantly more humans dying than if we made such tradeoffs.

The second form is that two things literally can’t be compared, except maybe to say that they’re both good or both bad. There’s nothing wrong with this position. It’s just aggressively useless if I ever want to make decisions involving those two goods. Can you imagine if Congress decided, “It’s impossible to say whether investing in education or healthcare is better for people. Guess we can’t do anything.” That would be silly.

This brings me to the most frustrating thing about all this: we make these comparisons all the time. I once asked one of my friends to give me an example of two things that were fundamentally incomparable. The answer: “financial prosperity and health”. I stopped for a moment, then responded: “But you support the Affordable Care Act. That is very clearly trading off some people’s financial prosperity to ensure better health for others. Even if you opposed it, that would still be a comparison.” If we’re going to be trading off between things, we might as well be honest about it and do it in the most intelligent way possible.

I’m not saying that such comparisons are always easy or always useful. For example, take comparing the discrimination faced by a black person versus that faced by a gay person. While we could in theory figure out which of them is worse, this is usually unnecessary. They’re both bad, and we’re not trading them off against each other. We’re trading them both off with the preservation of the status quo, a comparison which is much easier to make.

Tradeoffs are hard. They’re messy. We make mistakes, and not all of them are easily fixed. And reducing people to numbers to compare can devalue them in societally damaging ways. But tradeoffs are necessary if we want to succeed. Accepting that is the first step.

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